Turkey gets a new leader of the political opposition, and a chance to modernize its democracy

After many years, the main opposition in Turkey has someone new at the helm. His name is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, dubbed "Turkey's Gandhi." He represents this Muslim democracy's best hope to modernize politics and act as an effective check on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Supporters of the Republican People's Party (CHP) stand in front of a portrait of Kemal Kilicdaroglu at their party's congress in Ankara on May 22. Mr. Kilicdaroglu emerged as the new party chairman. The party was founded by Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern, secularist Turkey. But the CHP has badly lost the last two general elections to the Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

One of the challenges for modern Turkey is that it lacks an effective political opposition to check the party in power.

This has become especially noticeable since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which sprang from the Islamist movement and has governed for eight years, began to veer in some disturbing directions with no one to block its way.

The political imbalance may well change, and for the health of democracy in this largely Muslim member of NATO, hopefully it will. The hope lies in a federal bureaucrat nicknamed Turkey’s “Gandhi” for his thin frame, oversized spectacles, and mild manner.

His real name is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and he has a long history in state offices relating to finance. A Turkish economic magazine once named him “bureaucrat of the year” but he won more popular recognition in 2008 when he pursued corruption claims that led to the downfall of a senior AKP official. He's an advocate for clean government.

Now Mr. Kilicdaroglu, who last year lost the race for Istanbul’s mayor to the incumbent AKP man, suddenly finds himself as the leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). His rise came quickly when the entrenched party leader of more than 18 years, Deniz Baykal, had to resign over an alleged sex scandal.

Turks pretty much expected Mr. Baykal to lead the CHP forever, and that was part of the problem. Under him, it became a party of stasis, unable to gain new voters. It was defined by his strident, polarizing language, and by its singular ideological identification as the defender of secularism. Indeed, it is the party of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, who took Turkey in a secular, western direction.

It’s not surprising that Baykal found it hard to modernize his party much beyond a defense of the state’s founding doctrine. Historically, Turkey has had a strong military and judiciary that intervened in politics through coups and banning of political parties deemed a danger to the state. It’s hard to develop modern political parties with underlying principles and practical policies in such an atmosphere.

With its election win in 2002, the AKP began to change that. Its populist, charismatic Muslim leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, portrayed the AKP as a pro-business and socially conservative party. His economic reforms moved Turkey toward greater prosperity, and into membership negotiations with the European Union.

But in recent years he’s shown a more autocratic style, exercising excessive meddling with the media, judiciary, and military, including controversial wiretapping and “coup” investigations. His overture to Iran and inflammatory anti-Israeli rhetoric are sewing distrust with his Western allies and friends.

Right now is when one hopes that the CHP can move “Kemalism” forward to a party that defends secularism but also promotes tolerance for the religious rights of Muslims and nonMuslims, as well as other democratic freedoms. It was encouraging that in his acceptance speech, Kilicdaroglu – a minority Kurd – did not beat the secularist drum.

But he must also move his leftist party to become a social democratic one in the European sense – not a party of class slogans, but one that, in the spirit of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, recognizes the role of personal responsibility in a market economy. To simply proclaim that “we will not live in villas with swimming pools” (a reference to rich AKP members) will not inspire new voters who want a growing economy that produces jobs.

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